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Reasons for the Defeat of the Persians in 490 B.C and 480 – 479 B.C

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    “Kings had always been involving and impoverishing their people in wars, pretending generally, if not always, that the good of the people was the object” – Abraham Lincoln. The Persian Wars were a series of destructive and malevolent battles which occurred in the time frame of 490B. C and 480 – 479B. C. The Greek victory over the Persians in the Persian Wars cannot be attributed to only one factor, more it was a commixture of factors. Such factors include unity, leadership, strategy, tactics and the pre-eminence of the Greek soldier.

    Each contributing factor was to play a distinctive and pivotal role in the various battles to come, which ultimately would lead to the subsequent demise of the Persians. The Conflict among the Greeks and the Persians all began when Athens and Eretria made the fatal mistake of embroiling themselves in the ‘Ionian Revolt’. Consequently, the help given by the Athenians to the Ionians, according to Pamela Bradley – “drew upon them the vengeance of Darius, who now set in motion his first expedition against Greece”. This first expedition was to be known as the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.

    C. According to the Modern Historians Bengtson and Paul K. Davis, a Persian force of 20,000 led by the tyrant Hippias, landed at the Bay of Marathon, about 25. 5 miles from Athens. A council was held in Athens to decide whether to march out and meet the Persians, or stay and defend the city. Miltiades, one of the ten Generals, persuaded the Athenians to ‘take food and March’. Miltiades, who had inside knowledge of Persian warfare, played a crucial role in the outcome of the Battle of Marathon in that it was his initiative that produced the success of the Greeks. Miltiades’ words prevailed, and by the vote of Callimachus (the polemarch, or commander in chief)…the decision to fight was made” – Herodotus. In response, the Athenians marched out from Athens with a force of approximately 11,000 Greek hoplites (10,000 Athenian and 1,000 Plataean) to meet the Persians at Marathon. The Persians specifically chose the plains of Marathon for their cavalry, yet they could not use the horses in the sudden attack because the animals were in the process of embarking.

    According to Pamela Bradely, Miltiades seised the opportunity to strike the Persians when their cavalry was absent. The fact that the expert Persian cavalry took no part in the battle was one of the significant reasons for the Greek victory and the Persian loss at the battle of Marathon. Although immensely powerful and colossal in size, the Persian army lacked the capacity to function as a unit and fought as individuals. On the contrary, the Greeks were a unified force who fought for a common cause (their homeland) and against a common enemy (Persia).

    It was the vital role and leadership of Miltiades that proved to the Persians that ‘numbers counted for nothing’. As a result of his experience with Persian military tactics in the Cyclades, Miltiades knew Athens best chance was to move in close to the main Persian force, reducing their chance to use their archers; “the Athenians advanced at a run towards the enemy, not less than a mile away” – Herodotus. He was aware that the elite soldiers in the Persian army would be positioned in the centre.

    Thus, to counter this formation, Miltiades came up with an excellent battle strategy by significantly weakening the centre (which was intended to give ground) and by strengthening the wings; “One result of the disposition of Athenian troops before the battle was the weakening of their centre by the effort to extend the line sufficiently to cover the whole Persian front; the two wings were strong, but the line in the centre was only a few ranks deep” –Herodotus.

    In this way, the Greek wings converged and surrounded the Persian soldiers, compelling them to take part in hand-to-hand combat. Many Persians were slaughtered in the engagement; others, as they retreated to their ships, or found themselves caught between the sea and marshes. It was an outstanding victory for the Athenians. According to Herodotus – “In the battle of Marathon some 6,400 Persians were killed; the losses of the Athenians were 192”.

    Hence, the tactics and the paramount strategy devised by Miltiades in the Battle of Marathon as well as the unification of the Greek forces, both effectively crushed the Persian onslaught and significantly increased the confidence of the Greeks to incline themselves in a common cause if the Persians attacked again. The pre-eminence of the Greek soldier proved decisive in the Battle of Marathon. Although only ‘citizen soldiers’, the Greek hoplites were far more isciplined than their Persian counterparts and also better protected, with their bronze-visored helmets, solid bronze breastplates, shields and javelins. The Persians on the contrary were generally lightly dressed, with wicker shields and bows and arrows and sometimes had body armour of scales sewn to leather vest. Herodotus states that the Persians were “deficient in armour, untrained and greatly inferior in skill”. This crucial element destabilized the Persian assault as they fell at the hands of a much more skillful, better equipped and tactically superior Greek army.

    With their unprecedented use of battle strategy and intimate knowledge of their surroundings, the Greeks were able to defeat their Persian enemy. The second invasion of Greece came at the Battle of Thermopylae and Artemesium under King Xerxes, the son of King Darius. Thermopylae was the gateway to central Greece and was chosen as the desired battleground because of its topography; “the Persians would be unable, in the narrow pass to use their cavalry or take advantage of their numbers” – Herodotus.

    The forward defensive line remained at the narrow pass of Thermopylae, as part of the Greek fleet arrived at Artemisium for a coordinated battle. The pre-eminence of the Spartan soldier was exemplified at Thermopylae when the 300 Spartiates alone were able to hold of a massive Persian onslaught for three days as they “retreated, wheeled, and charged with well-drilled precision” – Hammond, as part of their strategy. However the heroic stance at Thermopylae soon came to an abrupt end when a Greek traitor named Ephialtes told Xerxes about a mountain path that circled around the Greek position.

    When King Leonidas was informed on the Persian advance he dismissed the other Greek cities, however “the Thespians…refused to obey the order to retire” – Herodotus, emphasizing the loyalty and unity that the Greeks had amongst each other. The Spartans moved into the wider part of the pass, fighting with great courage and inflicting heavy losses. The Persians ultimately defeated the Greeks whose heroic stance inspired other cities to fight in future conflicts. Despite Thermopylae being a Greek defeat, their rearguard action prevented the Persians overtaking the rest of the retreating forces.

    Furthermore, the battle was to be a great incentive for Greek morale. Even though the Greeks were defeated, the mettle of Greek resistance was strengthened, and encouraged them against the overwhelming numerical superiority of the Persian forces. Unity was the key to most Greek victories against the Persians, so what Thermopylae was able to do was to unite the Greek forces, instill within them a patriotic feeling and crush the Persians in future battles. The Naval battle of Artemisium was a forerunner to the Battle of Salamis.

    It was a major boost to Greek unity as Athens and Sparta, including another dozen Greek states fought alongside each other. Themistocles implemented a successful strategy (which would later be employed at Salamis), of fighting within the narrow passes to capitalize on the smaller size of the Greek ships. When the Persians attempted to encircle the Greeks, the Greeks responded by forming a defensive tactic called the Kylos – where the ships formed a tight circle of boats towards the enemy and captured 30 Persian ships; “The ships formed a tight circle, bows outward, sterns to the centre to protect their vulnerable sides and rear” – Herodotus.

    These tactical strategies proved extremely successful even though the battle at Artemisium was irresolute. According to Pamela Bradley, Themistocles plan to hold the Persian fleet at Artemisium played a decisive role in the outcome of the war. The difficulties faced by the fleet at Artemisium – the weather, Greek raids, and restricted fighting in the straits – all had contributed to the loss of a large portion of it. This meant that the Persian fleet can no longer divide itself and make raids on different strategic points in the Peloponnese.

    They could not afford to risk the defeat of the fleet and the loss of the whole campaign, so were now forced to concentrate at one point only. Ultimately, the lesson learnt at Artimisium was that the Greek navy, although not victorious, could match the supposedly better Phoenician seamen and ships; “In this engagement the two fleets were evenly matched” – Herodotus. Additionally, the Greek navy was able, if only briefly to prevent the Persians from assisting their land forces.

    Thus the naval action at Artermisium interrupted the Persian strategy of combined naval and military operations which was the Persians predominant strategy in war. Interrupting the Persian strategy reduced the strength of the Persian offensive against the Greeks and prevented the communication, assistance and the supply line for Xerxes military forces. Preventing these crucial factors gradually undermined Persia’s aptitude to win the war and subsequently became a major factor to Persia’s loss. The Battle of Salamis was one of the most important battles in history.

    The victory by the Greeks under Themistocles insured that Xerxes would be forced to retreat to Persia. Herodotus claims that the Greek commanders held a series of war councils, which centred on the question of whether to keep the navy at Salamis or move it closer to the army at the fortified Isthmus. Themistocles tried to convince the council that the best place to fight was at Salamis as “it would be much more advantageous to fight in the narrow waters of the Salamian channel then in the open bay of the isthmus, where the superior speed and number of the hostile ships would tell” – Bury and Meiggs.

    Knowing that the chance to fight at Salamis was slipping away, Themistocles ingeniously sent his slave Sicinnus to trick Xerxes into fighting at Salamis; “A Hellene from the Athenian army came and told…Xerxes that once the shades of night set in, the Hellenes would not stay”– Aeschylus. Xerxes was deceived and mobilized his fleet around the bay of Salamis, where he was drawn into the narrow straits by the Corinthian ships that pretended to feign a retreat. As at Artemisium, the much larger Persian fleet could not manoeuvre in the gulf, and a smaller contingent of Athenian and Aeginan triremes flanked the Persian navy. The enemy was in hopeless confusion; such ships as offered resistance or tried to escape were cut to pieces by the Athenians” – Herodotus. According to Herodotus, the Greeks were able to win because “The Greek fleet worked together as a whole”. Warry suggests that the implementation of the diekplus (a manoeuvre in which the attacking vessel swung sharply around its opponent and broke off its opponents oars), accompanied by the congestion of the narrow waters, was vital in securing a Greek victory.

    Themistocles was credited with the victory, as according to Plutarch, he chose the location of the battle; “Themistocles appears to have chosen the time for the battle as judiciously as he had chosen the place”. The victory at The Battle of Salamis was the result of Themistocles exceptional clairvoyance, application of naval warfare, as well as the unification and the diligence of the Greek soldiers in battle. Pivotally, unlike the battle of Artemisium which temporarily interrupted the Persian strategy of a combined naval and military operation, the victory at the battle of Salamis was able to, according to Pamela

    Bradley, “completely end the Persian strategy of combined naval and military operations and left the Persian army without a supply line”. This was a crucial factor that contributed to the Persian loss, simply because the Persian’s could no longer use their naval fleet to win the war, only relying on its land forces now. On the contrary, the Greeks held the upper hand as they could launch a combined naval and military operation against the Persians in any future battles.

    The Battles of Plataea and Mycale were the most important battles in the Persian Wars as they brought about the end of the Persian invasion of Greece, and subsequently forced the Persians to retreat. The campaign at Plataea is often cited as the “finest achievement of Greek unity” – Hammond. Approximately twenty-three states had taken an oath of comradeship to fight together until the barbarian invaders were destroyed, and for approximately three weeks over 100,000 Greeks had faced extreme difficulties and delays together and resisted the attacks of the Persians and their allies.

    King Xerxes and his fleet returned back to Persia after the defeat at Salamis, but Persian troops remained in Greece, under the leadership of Mardonius. The Persians positioned themselves in the open planes to suit their cavalry; however the Greeks, under Pausanias, stationed themselves advantageously in the foothills of Mt. Cithaeron. The Persians wanted the Greeks to leave their position in the foothills and venture into the open plains so that the immensely powerful Persian cavalry could be used to crush the Greek soldiers.

    Mardonius ingeniously poisoned the Greek water supply (the Asopus River) and food was also in short supply because of the continual cavalry raids on the Greek supply lines. Pausanias made the decision to retreat under the cover of night to the plains, where there would be sufficient food and water supplies; “Pausanias…at last gave the order for retreat” – Herodotus. However, under the confusion of the night, the Greek force was unintentionally split. Mardonious, seeing the split as political differences between the Greek army and as a cowardly escape attempt, signaled his army to charge at the Greeks.

    The well trained Spartans, under the leadership of their king Pausanias, fought strongly and withstood the charge of the Persians. Herodotus mentions that “in courage and strength (the Persians) were as good as their adversaries, but they were deficient in armour, untrained, and greatly inferior in skill”. The bravery and discipline of the Greek army eventually defeated the Persians, Killing Mardonius and most of his army; “once their resistance was broken by the Lacedaemonians, the Persian troops fled in disorder” – Herodotus.

    The discipline and prowess of the Spartan hoplites were once more revealed, as they bore the brunt of the fighting. Herodotus grudgingly admits that Pausanias “won the most splendid victory which history records”. Greek victory came as a result of the superiority of the Greek hoplite over the Persian army as well as the collaboration and resistance of the Greeks as a united people. Luck played a substantial part in the victory. Not many people would have believed a Greek Victory over the Persian Empire was possible.

    Luck, however, was translated by the Greeks as approval from, and the superiority of, their gods. Furthermore, the leadership of Pausanias, whose ability to conduct and manoeuvre a huge army must be attributed to the success of the Greeks on the battle field. As a result of the Greek success at Plataea, the invasion of mainland Greece came at an end and brought new supporters to the Greek alliance, which further undermined Persia’s ability to win the war.

    The Battle of Mycale was the final nail in the coffin of an already defeated and demoralized Persians; “So far as naval operations were concerned the Persians had completely lost heart” – Herodotus. After the battle of Plataea, the Greeks opted to pursue the Persians and finish them off completely. “The Persians, learning of their approach, dismissed the Phoenician contingent and they themselves made off towards the Asiatic coast; for they had decided after discussing the matter that, as they were no match for the Greek fleet, they had better not frisk an engagement.

    Accordingly they sailed to Mycale on the mainland” – Herodotus. The Persians prepared to face an encounter with the Greeks and built a barricade of shields out of a number of their ships; however, the Greek forces landed, fought determinedly and successfully with the Persians and burnt their barricade. “Once the barricade had fallen, the enemy made no further serious resistance; all of them turned and fled, except only the Persians, who, in scattered groups, continued to fight against the Greeks who were still pouring in through the beach in the barricade” – Herodotus.

    The Battle of Mycale was one of the two major battles that ended the Persian Wars and returned freedom to the Greek city-states. Mycale resulted in the destruction of the main Persian forces in Ionia, as well as their Mediterranean fleet. The success of Plataea, as well as Mycale, forced the Persians to leave both Greece and Ionia and retreat inland, thereby ending Persian rule.

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    Reasons for the Defeat of the Persians in 490 B.C and 480 – 479 B.C. (2018, Feb 01). Retrieved from

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